Old formulas are not always the best.

I love to mix my own paint from scratch. Especially from old traditional recipes. It is interesting what you can come up with.

Here is a link to the project Gutenberg publication of The Ordnance Instructions for the United States Navy. This is the 1866 fourth edition.

In it are recipes for all sorts of neat stuff.

For example:
Japan varnish.

Litharge 4 lbs. (a lead oxide crystal)
Boiled oil 87 lbs.
Spirits turpentine 2 lbs.
Red-lead 6 lbs. (lead tetroxide)
Umber 1 lb. (Iron bearing Clay}
Gum-shellac 8 lbs.
Sugar-of-lead 2 lbs. (lead acetate)
White vitriol 1 lb. (hydrated zinc sulphate)

Wow, three types of lead. To make it worse, the recipe for the BLO already had lead in it!

Boiled oil.

Raw linseed 103. lbs.
Copperas 3.15 lbs. (A Ferrous sulphate crystal)
Litharge 6.3 lbs. (Lead Oxide)

Going through the recipe list it becomes amazing that some ships crews didn’t go mad.

Here is the recipe for a wood preservative that I may try making, then again this is the only recipe that they warn you is dangerous to make!


First composition.

Pulverized rosin 3 lbs.
Pulverized shellac 2 oz.
Pulverized charcoal, or cannel-coal 1 lb.
Spirits turpentine 1 oz.

Second composition.

Pulverized rosin 3 lbs.
Beeswax 4 oz.
Pulverized charcoal, or cannel-coal 1 lb.
Spirits turpentine 1 oz.

The first two articles are to be dissolved in an iron vessel over the fire; the charcoal is then added, and briskly stirred until the whole is well intermixed; after which the turpentine is added, and stirred until it is well incorporated with the other ingredients. It is not safely made on board ship.The composition is to be applied when hot, with a brush or spatula, and smoothed over with a hot iron. The wood, or iron should be perfectly dry, and freed from rust or other loose substances.

Back to the dangers of old formulations, some quite beloved metal workers on the blacksmith pages I frequent, have died from metal exposure. Heating zinc is fairly dangerous. You can actually read the pages where an active member who posted, tutored and visited others had time to say good by and warn folk to the dangers as he started to die. Metal fever is rough, and lead is far from safe.

On the lead subject, here is why I fear it.

When I started out as a technician, tubes were still common, and the old timers would hold lead soldier in their mouths while they soldiered. There were a few that hated the taste of lead, and the difference in their lives was pretty obvious.

The old habitual lead chewers were still brilliant technicians, but they literally were not going to be able to learn and adapt to digital electronics. It was amazing, folk that could read a squiggle on an O scope, and trim a inductor to perfectly adjust phase angle could not deal with inserting logic pulses to test circuits.

Brilliant techs that could pull out a slide rule and tell you just what the values were needed to make an L or T pad work or any number of other calculation that they could do without looking up the formula, could not deal with ones and zeros. As a technician who came in on the cusp and had to do both, I can honestly tell you that they knew and understood classic analog circuitry in way that I am not sure I could ever learn to. But the easy, new stuff, they could not learn.

These folk were probably on the extreme end of lead absorption. What I got to see was the people who over years had soldiered with their head down near the fumes with a length of lead wound and clamped in their teeth. Another quality that they shared was a level of cranky that would hardly be considered acceptable in modern society. The technicians that did not suck lead, where a bit easier to get along with.

I use silver based soldier now, but I am not sure this is ideal. It is much safer when you are done, but while heating it, I wonder. There are several silver compound that are horribly toxic and can easily pass through the blood-brain barrier. So it is entirely possible that our methods of dealing with a toxin are as bad or worse. Such is the human condition.

There is pretty strong evidence that even low levels of lead affect learning. There is also a strong link to low levels of lead exposure increasing the odds of birth defects. Truth is a lot of us are probably quite damaged and not living up to our full potential. Sadly, that is life.

Cumulative toxins are interesting beasts, I could have been horribly poisoned 20 years ago, but it was the tiny dose I got last week that push me over the edge. This allows a person to say, “It never hurt me none!” up until the day they are silenced by the cumulative dosage.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if the black and white, slippery slope, all or none sort of thinking that has been applied to issues such as lead exposure, is caused by lead exposure? If the folk that make these decisions have had too much exposure to heavy metals. That would explain a lot.

I just think, that if there are substitutes that work well, it is a type of crazy to not use the substitute. If the cost difference includes infant mortality, then I am happy to wait a bit longer for the paint to dry.

If I make something for someone else, I am for damn sure, going to make sure, to the best of my ability and knowledge, it won’t cause problems further down the line.

Knives are dangerous, but I am still willing to give someone a knife. I won’t give then a knife that has slow cumulative poison hidden in the grip. I will use brass that has lead in it to make tools on occasion, I won’t use leaded brass on a part that you are in constant contact with as your sweat and wipe your brow.

Due my own exposure to lead, I took sodium alginate for several years to try and reduce the levels. These days, I give blood regularly. This may be a good deed, but it also reduces heavy metal build up. I hope that the transfusion from me doesn’t cause the recipient more harm than good.

Wilbur Pan, M.D., Ph.D., a pediatrician allowed me to quote him here:

I can put some numbers on the hazards of lead exposure. It’s not so much for the worker, but for children that they may come into contact with the lead particles that are carried out from the workplace.

In my day job I’m a pediatrician, and so lead toxicity is something I’m very familiar with. At lead levels of 10 micrograms/dL, a 5 year old will start losing IQ points. Doing the calculations for a typical 5 year old’s weight and figuring out the blood volume, that’s only 144 micrograms, or 5 millionths of an ounce of lead that kid has to swallow before his IQ starts to take a hit. Each 5 millionths of an ounce of lead will knock off about 5 IQ points.

This is an additive effect: every additional 5 millionths of an ounce of lead will knock off an additional 5 IQ points. So saying that you’re not going to worry about the additional small level of lead that you may be exposed to doesn’t make sense. It would have to be an incredibly small amount of lead to come in under that 144 microgram level. And again, this is an additive effect. Even if you only brought home 50 micrograms of lead dust on your clothes from a session at the gun range, after three trips, you’ve hit that 144 microgram level.

Other things associated with lead exposure: hyperactivity, failure to graduate high school, reading disability, delinquency, and hearing deficits. After 360 micrograms of lead ingestion in that 5 year old kid, anemia starts to kick in.

The usual exposure source for lead for kids is lead paint. But as the old housing stock either gets torn down for new construction, or increased awareness of lead paint has kicked in and more people are painting over or decontaminating their old houses, it seems that these days if kids are going to pick up lead, it’s from contaminated dirt. That would include dirt contaminated with lead particles carried away from the workplace, or a gun range.

So while I am fascinated by old recipes, there are a lot of them I will never try.

4 comments to Old formulas are not always the best.

  • Hey Bob,

    Hope you get email notices when old posts are commented on. I was flipping through your old posts to find the exact recipe for your wax mix (found it!) and came across this again. The quote from Wilbur reminds me of a book I just read I thought you might like, since it’s on topic, “Swindled: A History of Food Adulteration”

    The book talks a lot about lead’s use in food and drink throughout history, my two favorites being: a sweetener for wine and paint for colorful candies popular in Victorian England. The wine is somewhat understandable as it was a practice dating back to antiquity before it was generally understood that lead was toxic. The candy though is inexcusable as lead was already a known toxin in the 19th century and illegal as a food additive in England.



  • Good to hear from you Josh!
    That would Sugar of lead, lead acetate. A really nasty substance. It is amazing that anyone lived. No wonder history is full of crazy.


  • Skip J.

    Hey Josh;

    Good to see you in here! I’m here more often and the other place less often lately…

    Don’t you just love that wax mix? I’ve got some safflower, some paraffin, some beeswax and some turps. Bob’s about got me convinced to boil my new handles in it!!!


  • Annalea

    Thank you so much for sharing this info. I agree . . . history would be a different story without lead. I appreciate this article most, though, because it helps me understand my own dad a little better. He’s been a big-time hunter/target shooter for nearly his whole life, and exposed to all kinds of ag chemicals growing up. I couldn’t ever figure out why he flatly rejected my telling him that attaching a document to an email was no big deal . . . this helps me understand a little better what he might be up against. I first found your site searching for milk paint recipes, and then got pulled in by some of your archived posts. I’ve really enjoyed reading, and can’t wait to see what turns up next . . .

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